TIME Video Games

Everybody Is Freaking Out About What Might Happen at 3PM Today

US-IT-CONSUMER ELECTRONICS SHOW-CES
ROBYN BECK—AFP/Getty Images Intel Corp. CEO Brian Krzanich (L) and Gabe Newell, co-founder of game-maker Valve, discuss Intel's role in Valve's gaming development, during Krzanich's keynote address at the 2014 International CES.

Third day of the third month at three pm...

Today may be an auspicious day—if Internet gamers have anything to say about it.

At the annual Game Developer’s conference, legendary game maker Valve is scheduled to talk about its future plans. Earlier, the company announced a new virtual reality headset in partnership with Taiwanese phone giant HTC, the Vive. But the timing of the company’s sessions—the third day of the third month—has some speculating (or at least hopeful) that a sequel to one of its most popular titles might be announced.

The most wished for announcement is likely Half-Life 3, the rumor follow up to 2004’s critically acclaimed and commercially blockbuster Half-Life 2. The title has reportedly been in development for more than a decade. But no one outside the company’s Bellevue, Washington-based headquarters knows for sure. Other possibilities include Portal 3, a sequel to the best-selling 2011 game Portal 2.

Expectations may have already boiled over, though. The company said it would be focusing on hardware this year. And the presentation scheduled is supposed to be focused on the use of physics in game. It isn’t slated to be helmed by Valve boss Gabe Newell. But a nerd can always dream.

TIME Virtual Reality

Here’s How Valve Cracked Virtual Reality’s Biggest Problem

This is shaping up to be the most important year in the tumultuous, not-quite-there-yet history of virtual reality.

A number of companies, from Facebook and Samsung to Google and Microsoft, are making significant pushes into the technology, which has been a mainstay of science fiction for decades but has largely failed to materialize as a viable consumer product. The latest piece of kit, the HTC Vive announced this weekend, is the product of a collaboration between the Taiwanese phone giant and Valve, the purveyor of the most important software distribution platform on the PC, Steam.

Virtual reality, or VR, has a long tortured history. Until three years ago, the technology was more or less moribund. Then Palmer Luckey (now 22), reignited interest with a series of prototypes for a new device called the Oculus Rift, which improved significantly on the old technology by taking advantage of advances in components for phones. His company, Oculus VR, was acquired by Facebook last year for $2 billion.

Most of Oculus’ advances, which are now being adopted or emulated by the likes of Sony and Samsung, are in how images are displayed to users wearing the headset. Long story short, a VR system has to display two sets of images—one for each eye—at very fast rates or the viewer will get nauseous.

But the HTC Vive, which the companies say will be available later this year, solves the next most vexing problems: once a viewer is seeing 3D space, how do they maneuver and manipulate the environment around them. Aside from content that is compatible with VR, these are the biggest outstanding questions. Once you’re there, what can you do and how do you do it?

Early development kits for the Oculus employ a standard console controller to move around, but that can be disorienting. Sony’s Morpheus prototype for the Playstation4 uses a set of controllers that look like ice cream cones with lightbulbs on top with similar results. And Microsoft’s recently unveiled HoloLens, which projects images onto the real world, uses hand gestures and arm motions. It’s still unclear which approach will win out.

HTC says its system will come with a base station that can track a user’s movements in 3D space. The company also hinted at a specific controller, perhaps a set of gloves, to enable users to manipulate virtual objects. Details are still scant, but this could solve the problems of mobility in a simulated 3D environment.

If Valve and HTC have indeed managed to do that, virtual reality may finally be ready for prime time.

TIME Gadgets

We Finally Know Who’s Making Valve’s Virtual-Reality Headset

The HTC Vive should be out by the end of the year

Gaming company Valve dropped the news last week that it’s working on a virtual-reality platform akin to the Oculus Rift, but it wasn’t clear who was making the system’s hardware. Now we know: HTC on Sunday announced the HTC Vive, a joint HTC-Valve virtual-reality headset that’s due out by the end of the year.

HTC says the Vive has the “most immersive experience of any VR package,” thanks to a full 360-degree field of vision and 90-frame-per-second video capabilities. The company is also working on wireless controllers for the headset, which, given the Valve partnership, will probably be marketed primarily as a gaming device—games like shooters are a natural fit for the VR experience, and the Vive will be compatible with Valve’s SteamVR virtual-reality platform.

Still, games won’t be the only offering on HTC and Valve’s Vive headset. HTC is partnering with several content providers, including HBO, Lionsgate and Google, for other virtual-reality content like movies.

It still isn’t clear how much the HTC Vive will cost or what content will be available on the platform upon launch. A developer’s edition is due out this spring.

TIME Gadgets

Apple Granted Patent for Virtual Reality Headset

Samsung Electronics Co. Launches The Galaxy Note 4 Smartphone, Gear S Smartwatch And Gear Virtual-Reality Headset
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images A visitor tries out a Samsung Electronics Co. Galaxy Gear Virtual-Reality (VR) headset, jointly developed by Samsung and Oculus VR Inc., at Samsung's flagship store in Seoul, South Korea, Sept. 24, 2014.

Headset would use iPhone as a display

Apple may be experimenting in the virtual reality space. The company has been granted a patent for a head-mounted virtual reality device that would use the iPhone screen as the display. Apple first applied for the patent back in 2008, meaning VR has been on the company’s mind for a while.

The functionality of the product in the Apple patent seems to have the most in common with the Samsung Gear VR, a headset Samsung developed in conjunction with Oculus that uses the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 phablet as a display. These devices are a bit more complex than Google’s current solution, which slots a smartphone into a headset made out of cardboard.

Apple’s patent also calls for a separate remote control that would be able to manipulate the headset in some way.

Virtual reality isn’t the only new mode of interaction Apple is exploring. The tech giant had a patent granted for a “3D user interface” for computers earlier this year. Still, Apple being granted a patent doesn’t mean an actual product is in the pipeline.

TIME Gadgets

Why the New View-Master Is a Disaster

View-Master
Mattel Mattel View-Master

You wouldn’t strap a smartphone to your face, so why let your kids do it?

While I was recording some shows using my iPhone’s TiVo app last week, my eight-month-old’s gaze kept darting from the toy ball he was playing with to the nearby television, which was turned off. But with every familiar TiVo blip and bloop that came from my phone, he would whip around towards the big, black screen on the wall. This was the first time — and will undoubtedly not be the last — that I realized my kid was way smarter than I gave him credit for.

Despite me being a tech journalist and a pop culture junkie, my son has yet to have much exposure to screens of any sort. In fact, outside of the Super Bowl and some pigskin action on Thanksgiving, I’d estimate he’s had less than 10 hours of total screen time in his entire life. That sounds like a lot to a new, over-protective parent, but the reality is that 47% of babies spend nearly two hours a day watching television or DVDs. That makes him — in a FaceTime, iPhone, and Netflix world — practically an Aborigine.

But despite my best efforts, he knows where TiVo sounds come from, and that’s on me. So last week, when I saw the news that Mattel and Google were teaming up to re-launch the classic View-Master, I knew right then I wouldn’t bite.

A 21st century update of the classic stereoscopic slide reel toy, the forthcoming product is essentially a virtual reality headset aimed at toddlers. But instead of showcasing static images on a wheel, the new headset will use an inserted smartphone to display video that lets kids “take engaging field trips where they can explore famous places, landmarks, nature, planets and more in 360 degree ‘photospheres,’” according to the product’s press release.

Mattel and Google bill the low-cost device as an “imaginative and interactive learning environment,” but anyone with a memory of the original View-Master will recognize this as the same educational bait and switch that the classic model pulled. After starting as a way for kids to see the world, it morphed into a pair of Disney-pushing binoculars, overflowing with reels about theme parks and animated adventures.

“I question whether all of the content for this is going to be the allegedly educational stuff they’re marketing now, or is it going to be the content that Mattel already owns, like Barbie in Hawaii or something like that,” says Dr. Susan Linn, founding director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Her organization is responsible for getting Disney to stop marketing Baby Einstein videos as educational products. It’s also down on screen time in general because it’s the primary vehicle for advertising toys and junk food to little ones.

As a child of the 1980s who grew up watching a ton of television and playing with G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Star Wars action figures, that doesn’t concern me in the slightest. But Linn does have a valid argument, pointing out that in 1983, marketers spent $100 million per year selling things to kids versus $17 billion today.

Screentime and tykes

Instead of how screens are used to market products, I’m more worried about how constantly interacting with them affects people in general, and my little person in particular. News outlets have reported that the new View-Master was given a stamp of approval by pediatric ophthalmologists at Saint Louis University, but attempts to reach the doctors through the school proved fruitless. (University representatives could not identify the specific researchers, and Mattel did not respond to request for comments on this story.)

Regardless, even if strapping a smartphone to my kid’s face is safe enough on his eyes, an overwhelming amount of research has shown it will do terrible things to the rest of his body. For instance, screen time for toddlers has been proven to increase BMI, likely because it’s linked to fast food consumption, irregular sleep patterns, and sedentary behavior. It also can cause delayed language acquisition, take them away from creative play (which is key for developing problem solving skills) and even cause lower math and school achievement later in childhood. If that’s not bad enough, a 2010 article in the journal Pediatrics also showed kids who had at least two hours of daily screen time were likely to have increased psychological challenges, such as hyperactivity, difficulty controlling behavior and emotions, and problems with their peers. But, it’s cool — their eyes will be just fine.

“We don’t expect them to zone out for hours on end,” Mike Jazayeri, Google Cardboard’s product director reportedly told the media following the product’s reveal. Of course, no one expects that, but that is precisely what happens. Research has shown that screens’ flashing lights and colors trigger the fight or flight response in kids.

“The screen is incredibly compelling,” says Dr. Linn. “People think they’re engaged with them because they’re staring so intently, but what’s actually going in is that they’re caught in it and they can’t tear themselves away.”

How old is old enough?

Of course, had Mattel been available for comment, they’d likely point out that the new View-Master is intended for children seven and older. But realistically speaking, says Linn, that means the touchscreen toy is going to end up with pre-schoolers.

“Marketers do something called ‘aspirational marketing,’” she says. “Developmentally, kids want to be older; they look up to older kids; they want to have the things that older kids have.”

So along that line of thought, if Mattel and Google claim to be targeting seven year old children, they’re really after for four-, five-, and six-year-olds — because older kids won’t play with something if they think it’s meant for babies.

I admit that I’m excited to one day play video games and use my iPad with my kid, but I know I’ll have to wait until he’s ready. And as an adult in the modern world — from Facebook notifications to checking on eBay auctions to just doing my job — I also know that I struggle with screen time myself. But what it comes down to is that just because we have the technology to build something like a virtual reality View-Master, it doesn’t mean we should. Children don’t have the willpower to stop staring at the screen. Heck, most adults don’t either.

TIME Innovation

This Airline Is Giving Passengers Virtual Reality Headsets

Virtual Reality
Patrick T. Fallon—Patrick T. Fallon An attendee during the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015.

Some Qantas passengers will get Samsung's Gear VR headset

Your next in-flight movie could be a lot more immersive.

Australian airline Qantas is partnering with Samsung to bring the electronics company’s virtual reality headsets to some of its passengers. First-class fliers will soon be able to use Samsung’s Gear VR headset during flights to explore virtual reality worlds. The headsets will let customers digitally explore the Qantas airport, visit the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge and travel through the Australian wilderness.

In addition to in-flight VR, Qantas fliers will be able to use the headsets in first-class airport lounges in Sydney and Melbourne.

In a press release, a Qantas executive also promised that passengers will be able to access “the virtual worlds of their favorite Hollywood blockbusters,” though there are currently very few films release in a VR format. For now, the headsets are being offered in a limited three-month trial.

TIME Innovation

See The Incredibly Goofy Evolution of Virtual Reality Headsets

Inventors have been experimenting with virtual reality headsets in a variety of sometimes wacky ways, from virtual roller coasters to virtual surgery

TIME Innovation

Here’s What It’s Like to Use Microsoft’s Amazing New Holographic Headset

HoloLens
Windows

The coolest new product to come out of Microsoft in decades, the HoloLens, can overlay 3-D images on real-world surroundings, mixing of fantasy and reality

After tickling pint-sized sheep across a coffee table, blowing a holographic hole through a wall and touring the surface of Mars, it seems safe to say that Microsoft’s newly unveiled headset, the HoloLens, marks a major leap forward in the field of virtual reality.

Microsoft unveiled the HoloLens during a Windows 10 press conference at its Redmond, Washington headquarters on Wednesday. Rather than immerse the user in a digital fantasy world, like the Oculus Rift, the HoloLens overlays 3-D images on top of real-world surroundings, blurring the line between fantasy and reality.

No recording devices were allowed into the demonstration rooms, which were hidden beneath the ground floor of Microsoft’s Visitor Center and secured behind locked doors. Unlike the sleek, donut-shaped headset unveiled on stage, the prototypes in the demonstration were skeletal contraptions that wrapped around the cranium and included a small computer slung around the neck. The weight was easy to ignore once the technicians fired up a game of Minecraft and the game’s fantasy world sprawled out over real world living room furniture.

As the headset’s spatial sensors scanned their surroundings, a pulse of blue light passed over the tabletop and slipped around the corners. Suddenly a slightly translucent image of a castle rose from the tabletop. Beneath it, a pool of blue water was spread across the floor and thumb-sized sheep grazed at the water’s edge. The images are projected directly into the user’s eye and precisely turn with the user’s movements.

While the images appear to fade away at the periphery, a turn of the head quickly fills in the blank with new terrain. Users can interact with their surroundings by training their eyes on any object of interest, holding out a pointer finger and “air tapping” it with a downward flick. Air tap a holographic shovel, for instance, and it punches a hole through the coffee table. A soft beam of light passes through the opening and casts a bright patch on the floor.

The holes can offer keyhole glimpses into new terrains. Beneath the side table was a lake of lava. After a blowing a hole through the wall, a passageway to a cave opened, complete with bats flitting back out towards the user. But the highlight of the demonstration had to be the bizarre-yet-satisfying pleasure of tickling miniature sheep across a table, and watching one poor creature take a lemming-like leap over the table’s edge.

The second demonstration suspended a Skype video screen in mid-air. The caller, a Microsoft engineer, shared my view on her screen and directed me toward a scattering of tools. She then guided me through a real world installation of a light switch, with her drawing holographic arrows at the tools I needed each step of the way. It worked, and it showcased the HoloLens ability to stick an expert into a novice’s field of vision, instantly eliminating the skills gap.

A third demonstration projected photographic landscapes of Mars, snapped by NASA’s mars rover, in a surprisingly crisp image of its cracked and rocky surface. Microsoft has partnered with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab to simulate exploratory missions on Mars. A real-world monitor showed the two-dimensional landscape on a conventional screen, but pull the mouse cursor beyond the screen’s edge and it floats seamlessly into the 3-dimensional landscape, where a mouse click can plant a holographic flag into the ground.

A final demonstration showed how models can be constructed in space, by pinching pre-fabricated shapes, rotating them and gluing them together. A “perfect print preview for 3-D printing,” explained a Microsoft engineer as a coworker put the finishing touches on a koala wearing a space helmet. Moments later they distributed 3-D printed models of the same koala in a goodie bag.

To be sure, these were highly stage managed interactions with the HoloLens, and it remains to be seen how it will fare for the average consumer. When that will happen remains an open question. The HoloLens has been under development for at least five years, and its lead inventor, Alex Kipman, said the product would release sometime “within the Windows 10 timeframe,” which could mean a matter of years.

Still, the technology is mind-bendingly cool. If the experiences in the demonstration rooms can be carried over into the real world, Microsoft may have a shot at reclaiming the mobile market, leapfrogging over the current jumble of smartphones, tablets and phablets, and into the next generation of augmented reality.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 12

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. On the fifth anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, political strife is still the greatest obstacle to recovery.

By Jacqueline Charles in the Miami Herald

2. The U.S. uses economic sanctions because they don’t require a global coalition to work. But they may inflict damage beyond the intended target.

By Paul Richter in the Los Angeles Times

3. With deepening partisanship becoming the norm, don’t look to the states for new ideas.

By Aaron Chatterji in the New York Times

4. Juries could use virtual reality headsets to ‘visit’ crime scenes.

By Jessica Hamzelou in New Scientist

5. A new waterproof solar lantern is helping reduce deaths from burning fuel indoors for the world’s 1.2 billion living without electric light.

By Michael Zelenko in the Verge

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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